When Greg Sirota, film producer, and Justin Hall, editor of the queer-comics anthology No Straight Lines, first approached director Vivian Kleiman to propose creating a documentary film about queer comics, she hesitated. Even though she’d read comics as a kid—and calls Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For a lifeline during her coming-out years—Kleiman didn’t have much knowledge of the medium beyond that.
Fast forward to a few years later, and Kleiman’s documentary film, also entitled No Straight Lines, has played film festivals around the world, including the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival.
The film focuses on five pioneering queer comics creators. In addition to Bechdel, there are interviews with Rupert Kinnard, Mary Wings, Jen Camper, and the late Howard Cruse. Through their stories, we get a fresh angle on queer history, taking us through 1970s liberation movements, the AIDS epidemic, the growing queer representation in mainstream media, to today’s webcomics, graphic novels, and even Tony Award-winning musical adaptations.
Kleiman sat down with OutSmart to discuss her new documentary prior to its January 24 television debut on PBS.
Neil Ellis Orts: Were you involved in the selection of the five cartoonists you’ve highlighted?
Vivian Kleiman: While the idea for the film originated with Justin Hall and Greg Sirota, the notion of doing a film is so different from doing an anthology that’s more encyclopedic. My desire, or need, as a filmmaker is to have a more intimate connection with a few individuals, and use those particular closeup stories to infuse the viewer with a bigger picture. Typically, I like to profile three people in a documentary film. In this case, it was impossible to narrow it down to three. Justin and I would talk about it, and he understood the notion of intimacy and narrative construction, but he also was so in love with so many of the artists. For him, it was especially difficult to accept that I was putting a limit on the number of people. Some people we just knew had to be in the film. Rupert Kinnard, for example, was someone I knew, so he was definitely going to be in the film. You can’t have a film about queer comics without Alison Bechdel and Howard Cruse. As you can see, the list of available slots was rapidly narrowing, and then it became quite hard.
When did you start working on this? Howard Cruse has been dead for a couple of years already.
Yeah, it’s so sad. Just as an aside, Howard was sick with cancer, and on a certain Sunday he was supposed to come home from the hospital and he was going to watch the rough cut on Monday. He passed away on Sunday night. So Howard did not get to see the cut, and it pains me.
Justin encouraged me to go to the first Queers & Comics Conference. It was the first international ingathering of queer comic-book artists from all over the place and was held in New York in 2015. I was completely blown away by what I saw. I walked into the conference hall and I saw before me the entire spectrum of queerness. [There was] the elder gentleman with the balding head and very wrinkled collared striped shirt engaged in conversation with a very young person with chartreuse-colored hair. And all around them was a circle of people completely engaged in discussion, taking delight in each other. I went, Oh my goodness, there’s something unusual happening here. The next few days, I listened to people talking on panels and showing their work—all sorts of topics and aesthetic approaches—and I knew this was an amazing subject. And there was a plethora of images. What more does a documentary filmmaker need? At that first Queers & Comics Conference, Howard gave a presentation in which he basically summarized four decades of queer history through his work and his life. I sat there and thought, this is the structure of the film. He was offering the spine of a narrative for a documentary film.
How did you decide to add cameos of younger artists?
I watched the first two rough cuts of the film. I kind of felt like this is okay, but I wouldn’t watch it twice. The “Would I watch it twice?” question nagged at me. I don’t remember how I thought of it, but one morning I woke up and decided I would try an experiment. The second Queers & Comics conference was going to take place in San Francisco, my backyard. I could film there without any travel expenses. I decided to use it as an opportunity to grab some young people who were attending the conference and just get their impressions about some of the themes I was thinking about. Justin knew some of the younger people who were coming, and he also teaches comics at the art school where the conference was taking place. So I had a production assistant run out and grab people. In all, we had about a dozen young people with whom I had ten minutes each.
I was really touched by the one young fellow who said he’d only just learned about Rupert Kinnard, and that made him wonder how many more Ruperts there were that he didn’t know.
Yes, that comment is so poignant because in the thin literature on queer comics, one sentence is always stated: Mary Wings published the first gay comics by an out lesbian. At first, I started to use that sentence, but then at a certain point I said, Wait a second, there might have been other lesbians or gay men who were out and had published comics, but maybe those didn’t get saved. Maybe Mary just happened to be in Dyke Central where there were more people and more preservation.
Is there something we didn’t cover that you’d like to add?
Only how surprised I am by the reception to the film. I did not expect to be accepted at Tribeca—one of the country’s premier film festivals. I don’t have words to describe the joy. As surprised as I was to be accepted in these festivals, I am equally stunned by the folks at Independent Lens. Its executive director, Lois Vossen, approached me not once, but twice. It’s incredible audacity and courage on Lois’ part to even think that it’s possible to bring these images to Public Television. The film was rejected by the big streamers—Netflix, Hulu, HBO—and for her to come on and convince me that it would be OK to collaborate, that’s just awesome.
What: No Straight Lines on the PBS series Independent Lens
When: January 24, 10:00 p.m.
Where: Houston Public Media (Channel 8)
This article appears in the January 2023 edition of OutSmart magazine.